January 03, 2014

Cooperstown Central: Were roids and PEDs the only reason for baseball's power surge?

As Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and a host of other likely, or in some cases vaguely alleged, users of steroids, human growth hormone and whatever else might fall under the aegis of "performance enhancing drugs" await another shot at Cooperstown, we might ask how much roiding really was worth.

How much of an influence were steroids, on the batting side? I say batting because "chicks and Bud Selig dig the long ball," and batters don't have rotator cuffs and Tommy John ligaments to blow out.

I'd say they're worth 35 percent of the power explosion. The Costa Rican baseballs after Rawlings moved its factor from Haiti? Maybe about 17.5 percent. Maple bats another 17.5 percent. Bandbox ballparks, like Philly, Cincy, Denver (the power surge started pre-humidor) and Houston, 15 percent? Umps squeezing the strike zone 15 percent? That puts us at 100 percent.

That said, maybe I need to recalibrate. Baseball Prospectus makes an argument that expansion from 26 to 30 teams bumped the performance of top batters (and pitchers, too). And, per my PEDs+ equivalent of OPS+ and ERA+, provides some specific calibration guesstimates:
Since 1950, there have been seven seasons in which 17 or more players finished with at least six WARP. All seven came within five years after an expansion, even though fewer than half of all seasons since 1950 fit that condition. Excluding strike-shortened seasons of 1981, 1994, and 1995, an average of 15.5 players have posted at least six WARP in the five years after expansion, compared to 11.0 players in all other seasons.

When comparing performances from different eras, we don’t just compare each player’s raw stats, because we understand that those numbers come from different environments. Good analysis instead uses context-neutral statistics, comparing performance to that of an average or replacement-level player. But when “average” or “replacement level” changes—as in the case of expansion eras—should we not also consider that factor?

To estimate the impact of expansion on stars’ statistics, we can compare the performance of the top players before and after expansion. In post-expansion seasons, the top 10 players in baseball have had an average WARP of 7.8; in all other years, their average is 7.4, a statistically significant difference. Using different cutoffs (eg., top five or top 20) yields similar estimates of about .4 wins per season.
Very interesting stuff.

I'm not holier than thou on the issue of steroids in baseball. My take is, how much did roiding, in my estimation, boost a particular suspect player's career. If I think I can reasonably factor that out, AND get some contrition, I will at least be open to voting a player into the Hall of Fame.

For example? Rafael Palmeiro is a "high borderline," still, with 350 HR, 450 2B, and a WAR around 55 or so. Raffy probably goes .360/.500/.860 on OBP/SLG/OPS. 1,500 runs and 1,700 RBIs. Of course, his oWAR might fall below 60. That's the hesitation point. Is Raffy a higher-grade Harold Baines without steroids? I wouldn't argue against that. But, he at least gets consideration. But, I lean no.

Mark McGwire? I estimate that he'd be down to 450 HRs, and would lose a ton of walks, and so lose OBP and lose massively on OPS and OPS+, reinforcing his one-dimensional nature, so a no. Knock his OBP down to .380, his slugging to .550 and then his OPS to .930. His runs fall to 1,100 and his RBIs to 1,300. About 450 HRs. NOT a HOF career. That's a high-grade Dave Kingman or not a lot better.

Other players? As far as prime suspects, and doing some "redacting"?

Sammy Sosa
is not a steroid-subtracted HOFer. Gary Sheffield likely is not, either. On the pitching side? Andy Pettitte is not. What he is, if anything, is the current generation's slightly better ... wait for it ... Jack Morris. Actually, he's enough better than Black Jack that he has a halfway legit argument, World Series record aside, for being a HOFer. But I still lean no.

Anyway, if I had a vote? No guilt, no entry. Let's have confessions. Not just by the individuals. Bud Selig and Gene Orza and others from the union need to step to the plate, pun intended, and hit a clean one out of the park.

And, then, we can do something like with OPS+ and ERA+, and make our best guesstimates on how to "neutralize" for steroids.

In short, just as a website like Baseball-Reference makes sabermetric adjustments for different ballparks, different eras, and so forth, I would like more information so we can make a sabermetric adjustment for steroids and human growth hormone, and anything else that was in the "cream" and "clear" that Bonds got from  BALCO. No, it won't be a perfect adjustment, but, it would be some adjustment.

There's other reasons for the contrition. If Bonds, especially, fesses up to details, maybe we get improved testing. Maybe we get better ways of warning high school kids away from this.

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